Tag Archives: social justice

Reflection on Aristotle’s “The Politics”

While I’ve passed my quals and technically need just one more methods course, nothing could stop me from taking this semester’s special seminar, Social Justice and Public Policy, with Price School Associate Professor Lisa Schweitzer. Nothing. Lisa is one of the unicorn academics — amazing in all regards — and this particular class is a veritable carnival of bringing justice theory to bear on contemporary policy debates. Each week, she provides a reading prompt and we write one-page responses. Given that the readings are classics, I thought it might be interesting to publish those prompts and responses over the course of the semester.

“Which three points about justice, in Aristotle’s framing, strike you as being most outmoded/unhelpful/wrong vis-a-vis your own internal sense of justice? Why? Can you identify three points of agreement between your own ideas about justice and Aristotle’s?”

A first-time contemporary reader can struggle with Aristotle. Setting aside that he affirms the institutions of slavery and gender inequality, he is an unabashed aristocrat. No revolutionary, he asserts there are three types of good city (polis) formation: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government (or polity), all in contradistinction to their respective perversions: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Above all, Aristotle prefers the king with unique “moral wisdom” (p. 281), who will govern the polis justly, as would the finest of household managers. Aristotle bases this and all other positions in the reading in the implicit and teleological argument that man is, by nature, “a political animal” (p. 265), and cities, organic sites for the common good. It is natural for man to convene in the city, and thus, the most correct and just practices are those that afford the polis the greatest amount of natural harmony. It is on the issue of naturalness that Aristotle’s argument hinges, and so by turns fails and succeeds.

Among the first problems is his conception of the slave. Again, this is less about the moment in history than it how he waffles in describing that particular household relationship’s agents. To wit, there is such thing as a bad citizen and a bad man, and sometimes the slave possesses the “rational faculty of the soul” (p. 267). By that extension, can we feel truly comfortable agreeing that the ruler/ruled relationship is “beneficial” (ibid) and “necessary” (ibid) in all cases? Taken to the extreme, if the city’s leader is a tyrant and his position thus unnatural, how do we categorize the rest of the city member’s roles? Are the slaves now freedmen, household-managing citizens?

Second, while Aristotle does not countenance social mobility, nature certainly does. Male mammals do not fight each other for fun, but for status and leadership. Aristotle’s hermetic class conception thus makes little sense depicted as “natural.” Aristotle all but admits this weakness in his discussion about who might become citizens when. In some instances the wealthy mechanic may enjoy citizenship, but never the laborer. In other instances, one citizen parent will do, in others, having both is mandatory.

Finally, Aristotle is a straight-up xenophobe – in any era. Those without need for cities are “barbarians” (p. 265), and no resident alien or foreigner may ever hope for citizenship. Except national borders are social constructs – there’s really nothing natural about them other than the regrettable human tic to reject the unknown.

However, Aristotle’s emphasis on one’s natural commitment to and responsibility for the collective good is well taken. Returning to the topic of the ruler, Aristotle argues that city governments who adjudicate on behalf of the common interest are just. By contrast, governments operating on behalf of individual interests are “perversions” (p. 285) – they are “despotic; whereas the city is an association of free men” (ibid). Within this, distributive justice is meted out in terms of “proportionate equality:” one’s take from the city must accord with his contribution to it. Romney and sundry CEOs who ship jobs overseas are, in Aristotelian terms, grossly overpaid.

Not surprisingly, Aristotle recognizes there is a rightful and natural limit to one’s wealth, and thus privileges use over exchange value. Within the household, the manager must practice moral virtue, seeking out only things that have function, a legitimate use. Through this art of acquisition of wealth, he provides for and justly leads his household. The household manager who abandons this art in favor of the art of acquisition of currency acts unnaturally.

Finally, Aristotle’s wisdom has material implications. Naming usury as the worst of all types of exchange, he explains, “Acquisition for acquisition’s sake…makes barren metal breed” (p. 274). Reading this, I thought of balloon payments and sketchy refinancing contracts, and saw miles and miles of abandoned houses in my mind’s eye.

In the end I find Aristotle’s conception of natural order best serves questions of equality, and not society’s constitution. “What works for the collective?” is as critically important a question today as it was when he first wrote. It is up to us to modify what his “collective” means.

Work cited
Aristotle. (2007). The Politics. In  Justice: A Reader, M. Sandel, ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Singhal, A. and Rogers, E.M. (1999). _Entertainment-Education: A Communication Strategy for Social Change_. Mahwah and London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Arvind Singhal, PhD, Communication Theory and Research, USC Annenberg School for Communication, is Professor of Communication and Director of the Social Justice Initiative at The University of Texas at El Paso. His research and outreach spans multiple sectors, including health, health, education, peace, human rights, poverty alleviation, sustainable development, civic participation, democracy and governance, and corporate citizenship.

Everett M. Rogers, PhD in Sociology and Statistics, Iowa State University, was a communication scholar, sociologist, writer, and teacher best known for his “diffusion of innovations” theory and for introducing the term “early adopter.” To commemorate his contributions to the field, the USC Norman Lear Center established the Everett M. Rogers Award for Achievement in Entertainment-Education, which recognizes outstanding practice or research in the field of entertainment education.

“Entertainment-education is the process of purposely designing and implementing a media message both to entertain and educate, in order to increase audience members’ knowledge about an educational issue, create favorable attitudes, and change overt behavior. Entertainment-education seeks to capitalize on the appeal of popular media to show individuals how they can live safer, healthier, and happier lives” (9).

Singhal and Rogers believe entertainment-education can contribute to social change by: (1) positively impacting audience appreciation and comportment, and (2) influencing viewers’ external settings and establish conditions for change at the mesa or macro levels.

However, ensuring all determinant factors are well-aligned/healthy to ensure entertainment-education’s effectiveness is no small feat. The factors are: audience characteristics, organizational factors, media environment (exposure is key), audience research, program-specific factors, and infrastructural factors.

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Filed under Annotated Bibliographies, Community Development, Media Literacy, Minor Field, Research Fields

Fainstein, S. (2010). _The Just City_. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Susan Fainstein received her PhD in Political Science from MIT and is Professor in Urban Planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and Kennedy School. She has taught at Columbia and Rutgers Universities, and has been a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Witwatersrand. Her research focuses on comparative urban policy, planning theory, and urban redevelopment. Her books include: The Just City; The City Builders: Property, Politics, and Planning in London and New York; Restructuring the City; and Urban Political Movements. She’s also coedited pieces on urban tourism, gender and planning, planning theory, and urban theory.

In this book, Fainstein develops an urban theory of justice and uses it to asses extant and potential programs and institutions. Building on Rawls’ concept of justice as fairness, she proposes a just city exhibits equity, democracy, and diversity. Moreover, the justice criterion “requires the policy maker to ask, efficiency or effectiveness to what end?” (9). This book is a proposal for “realistic utopianism,” wherein she advocates for Sen’s (1992, 1999) and Nussbaum’s (2000) respective capabilities theory view. Following Nussbaum’s threshold level of capabilities, Fainstein upholds this metric: the “potential to ‘live as a dignified free human being who shapes his or her own life'” (as cited on 166). She also proposes Fraser’s (2003) “nonreformist reforms” approach affirming, like Castells (1983), that cities are the sites for collective consumption. She frames effective social movements as just urban policies and argues they do have transformative potential despite their local scale.

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the Manifesto 2.0, Manovich, and Castells’ Informationalism

In an earlier  corner of my summer’s research was a stack of books whose topics, like my IML 500 class, digital media and tools, represented the convergence of my interests: community planning, digital media, and media arts. I have much to learn about the latter two topics, hence this class, this cascade of annotated bibliographies, and their informing stack of books. At the top of the stack was Manuel Castells’ The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban Regional Process. Though he published it in 1989, it remains strikingly relevant today, and especially so in terms of the course. In it, Castells examines the technological revolution’s transformation of the relationships between and among production, society, and space. He proposes the term “informationalism” in lieu of “post-industrialism,” calling the latter a “negative” term, one inadequate to describe the genuine impetus for our economy. That driving force is information. Economic growth via the manufacture of product propelled the industrial age. Informationalism, by contrast, focuses on the accumulation of technological developments and innovative processes. As UCLA’s ‘s 2009 Mellon Seminar in Digital Humanities asserts in “The Digital Humanities Manifesto, 2.0,” “Process is the new god; not product.”

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Debord, G. (1983). _Society of the Spectacle_. Detroit: Black and Red.

Co-founder of the Letterist International and later the Situationist International (SI), which played a considerable part in the Paris Uprising of 1968, Marxist philosopher and artist Debord articulates a bleak and totalizing view of modernity in 221 theses.

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles” (#1).

The spectacle for Debord is the overwhelming and distracting power not of images, “but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (#4). Whether it is concentrated, as in the totalitarian regime revolving around a sole figure/state, or is the diffuse antipode, as in the market economy-embedded society where acts of liberty are performed through purchase power, “the spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable, inaccessible” (#12). Not only is the spectacle inaccessible, it is enduring. Since revolutionaries generally operate within the logics of the spectacle, efforts to overthrow it are doomed. Complicating matters further, Debord insists a successful revolution is “a unitary critique of society” (#121). This critique is manifest action, exemplified by the SI’s favored activities, the dérive (“drift”) and détournement.

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Helguera, P. (2011). _Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook_. New York: Jorge Pinto Books.

Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist who works with installation, sculpture, photography, drawing, and socially engaged art and performance. In addition to his artistic practice, he has worked as an education curator in contemporary art museums. From 1998-2005, he was the head of public programs at the Guggenheim. Since 2007, he has been MoMA’s director of adult and academic programs. He’s written several books, ranging from novels, to curatorial stories, to essays on memory, and so on. His most recent product is based on his “knowledge, experience, and conclusions derived from specific applications of various interactive formats, from discursive and pedagogical methods to real-life situations” (x).

The goal, which I believe he achieves handily, is to give insight into how to use art in the social realm, while placing it within a larger discussion about the debates, both theoretical and application-based. His main point is that the tools of education share parallels with art — they rely on collaborative dynamics, experimentation, and the development of materials. However, what educators understands better than many artists is their “socially engaged art [SEA] can’t be produced inside a knowledge vacuum” (xiii).

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Castells, M. (1977). _The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach_. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Manuel Castells is University Professor and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Community Technology and Society at USC. He is also Research Professor at the Open University of Catalonia; Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley. He was born in Spain in 1942 and grew up in Valencia and Barcelona. He studied law and economics at the Universities of Barcelona and Paris. He received a doctorate in sociology and a doctorate in human sciences from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He moved to the United States in 1979.

In what is considered to be the first fully articulated neo-Marxist critique of the socio-political, economic, and spatial organization of cities, Castells begins by arguing that ideological perspectives shift proper focus away and displace “the axis of contradictions” (p. 430). For a full appraisal of the various urban phenomena, Castells uses historical materialism not as a perspective, but as a schema. He begins by establishing a historical account, distinguishing developed world cities’ formations from those post-colonial, dependent economies and socialist ones, as well as case studies of North American cities and Paris to distinguish between their unique formations.

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DeFilippis, J. and Saegert, S. 2008. Communities Develop: The question is how? In: J. DeFilippis and S. Saegert, eds. _The Community Development Reader_. New York and London: Routledge, Ch. 1.

James DeFilippis is Associate Professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers. His PhD is from Rutgers is in Geography. Susan Saegert is Professor of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt Peabody College. She was recently Professor of Environmental Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center and received her PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Michigan. Their professed reason for compiling this reader is to provide a simultaneously critical and practice-oriented selection of readings for both scholars and practitioners alike; they see no point in discussing one and not the other. They frame their importance of communities around the discovery that community did not fade away in the transition from rural to urban capitalist environments (as the European social theorists predicted) but developed into being a vital component in the perpetuation of the overarching political economy and where new social reproduction occurs. “Community development occurs when the conditions of surviving and thriving in a place are not being supplied by capital” (5). The history and practice of community development represents the tension between the struggling communities and hopeful, democratic ones. Its goals: providing for children and adults in communities, creating equitable institutions that distribute goods/services justly, and promoting sound human interrelations that uphold and encourage social development and democratic practices.

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Political Intervention and the Spectacle – presentation

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About/By/In Out the Window

Out the Window is the first of its kind participatory learning experience for young people and the Los Angeles Metro ridership. A collaboration among four of Los Angeles’ media arts organizations – LA Freewaves, Echo Park Film Center, Public Matters, and UCLA REMAP (Center for Research in Engineering, Media, and Performance) – and Transit TV, the project engages youth and community-based artists in producing relevant and meaningful videos about their neighborhoods and lives. The project is divided into two phases: the first involves the work of students from East Los Angeles, Echo Park, and Historic Filipinotown, and the second adds videos by LA artists, activists, and storytellers. All work aims to engage and inspire the LA Metro ridership.

I hope this is a representative, if not comprehensive, report of the works achieved and things learned over the course of Out the Window’s implementation.

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